“Oh, man,” Lamont staffer Kevin Bock ’08 remembers thinking, “Ned Lamont is a truly terrible speaker.”
The place was the unassuming New Haven Free Public Library, the time an “ungodly hour” for a Saturday morning last January, and the percentage of Connecticut voters who recognized Lamont SOM ’80 a measly 4 percent (within the statistical margin of error, as his campaign director famously remarked). On that morning, Bock decided that despite the “ums” peppering Lamont’s apparently under-rehearsed stump speech, the candidate was the “real deal.”
Bock watched Lamont leave his podium for a grip-and-grin session with the 50 or so audience members present, fumbling through meaningless 30-second exchanges with first one, then another, then a third New Havener. And then Lamont looked back.
“He turned to the first guy and said, ‘You really weren’t happy with what I said, were you?’” Bock remembers. “And he went back and spent five minutes hashing out the issues with that guy. The fact that he cared enough to go back and really stand there until the other person understood what he was saying and vice versa convinced me that he had a genuine interest in his voters.”
“Oh, man,” Lieberman staffer Marshall Shaffer ’07 remembers thinking of Joe Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67, “I think every other politician would have appeased them.”
The site was a big business rally, the media spotlight intense — this was in 2000, when Lieberman was a presidential hopeful — and the background noise the boos and hisses of a very angry bunch of corporate higher-ups when Shaffer decided that he could always “have faith” in Lieberman.
As the startled crowd jeered at Lieberman’s pro-union, pro-labor tirade, Shaffer watched the senator press on, finishing his talking points and speaking above the din.
“I’ve been working with Joe for five years now,” Shaffer said. “And the reason I have stayed with him so long is that everything I’ve seen of him, every conversation we’ve ever had, only cemented in my mind the values I saw him stand up for in paper and on TV.”
Billed as a straw vote on the Iraq War and Beltway partisanship, the Lieberman-Lamont match-up, in which many Yalies invested their summers, dominated the news media this summer. In the past month, U.S. newspapers have run twice as many headlines mentioning Lamont or Lieberman as they have mentioning the Israeli or Lebanese prime ministers, according to Lexis-Nexis.
But for the Yalies who spent their summers slaving away for the Lamont and Lieberman campaigns, it was and is a race that, regardless of which man they worked for, represents the last, best hope of political idealism today.
Making it personal
For all the Eli campaign staffers interviewed, their campaigns’ respective talking points have become personal mantras. They call their candidates “Ned” and “Joe,” and they believe they are saving the Democratic party, if not American democracy.
Lamont deputy communications director Ben Simon ’07, whose “Primary Election Day” photo album on Facebook has more photos than his “Junior Year So Far” album, filed a petition to accelerate by a semester before Lamont looked like he stood a chance in the primary, just in case he would be able to stick around for the general election. He is now taking the fall term off to concentrate on Lamont’s campaign. Between the end of finals and the end of August, Simon worked on the campaign for all but three days.
Shaffer, who has worked for Lieberman since his junior year of high school and is now the senator’s Waterbury regional director, left home at 8 a.m. and would still be handing out pizza at senior citizens’ homes or attending a Democratic Town Committee meeting come 11 p.m.
And as of primary night, Bock had not left the Lamont office in “a large number of days,” sleeping under a cardboard box the night before and coordinating the hundreds of volunteers being dispatched to polling places.
“About 7:55 p.m., five minutes before polls were to close, I just realized there was nothing else I could do,” Bock said. “It was the weirdest feeling in the world, that the last eight months have just all of a sudden culminated in one colossal day.”
Lamont won the primary, with a record 45 percent of registered Democrats turning out on polling day. Lieberman conceded, but he vowed to run in November as an Independent calling himself a member of “Team Connecticut.”
Political ‘rock stars’
Shaffer averaged five hours of sleep every night the week former President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 came to town. He was worried about potential protestors, going crazy trying to assign tickets and fielding some 5,000 calls, 2,000 e-mails and 10 phone lines ringing off the hook as every major newspaper in Connecticut and some two dozen radio stations wanted the details on the ex-president’s arrival.
“I had people come up to me and say, ‘I’m a friend of Marshall [Shaffer’s] — he said I could come,’ when I’d never seen them before in my life,” Shaffer said.
The former president endorsed Lieberman in Waterbury, on Shaffer’s turf, a performance that perhaps contributed to the incumbent’s success in that region: In the dozen towns in which Shaffer was charged with campaigning, Lieberman’s support crossed 50 percent, as compared to 48 percent statewide.
“It was like Lieberman was a rock star,” Shaffer said. “His constituents were so excited to see him.”
In the early days, Bock remembers, he was ecstatic to see a Lamont bumper sticker on a car he did not recognize, because it meant that Lamont’s total number of votes would be at least equal to the number of volunteers “plus one.”
Then came the state Democratic convention, where Lamont needed to sway 15 percent of the state’s delegates to be assured of a spot on the primary ballot without being forced to collect 15,000 signatures.
“This was the insider’s insider’s game,” Simon said. “The delegates were mostly members of the machine. And the story coming out of that weekend was ‘Lamont wins with 33 percent of the vote.’ We would have been happy with 15.01 percent of the vote, but getting a third of the vote —losing two-to-one to Lieberman — made us ecstatic.”
Now Lamont is a minor celebrity — Simon remembers random New Haveners coming up to shake Lamont’s hand at a Temptations concert on the Green — and he is trying to avoid becoming a caricature, Simon said.
“He is not a communist, despite what critics of ours like to imply or at times say explicitly,” Simon said. “Most of his positions are really quite mainstream. He votes with solid majorities of Americans who want real change in Iraq, real national health care, real social security and real education.”
‘A lot of work to do’
Shaffer’s 21st birthday was a dry one.
Just as the staff of the Waterbury regional office wheeled out his birthday cake and got ready to sing, Shaffer got the call. Lieberman had lost, and the celebration no longer felt particularly celebratory.
“But after that initial point, I started feeling good,” Shaffer said. “Lieberman is a Democrat at heart. … Nothing is going to change that, and he’s still going to caucus as a Democrat. After November, nobody’s going to consider that an issue any more. I’m feeling good about this race.”
Lieberman didn’t lose the primary because he didn’t care about Iraq, Shaffer said — Shaffer has seen Lieberman tear up as he talks to veterans testifying before the Veteran’s Affairs committee. And he didn’t lose it because he was out of touch with his constituents — Peter Nicewicz ’08 said he has seen Lieberman on the New Haven Green and eating pizza at a Waterbury dive, shaking hands with the elderly and making conversation with children too young to vote.
Nicewicz said he thinks the Lieberman campaign should do well in November if it can dispel some of the illusions people hold about Lieberman’s relationship with the Democratic party.
“I think one thing you have to realize is that Joe originally believed, as did many Democrats, that the war was a good thing,” Nicewicz said. “This summer has been a lesson for me in perseverance. The values Joe has represented for the past 18 years — the Democratic values — remain the same.”
Taiwo Stanback ’06 was still in her sweaty “Lamont for Senate” T-shirt when she heard the news that Lamont had won the primary. Her first reaction: “Ugh, we still have a lot of work to do.”
Fresh out of Yale and determined to transform a “lackluster” Democratic party, Stanback is glad she chose Lamont’s campaign over a more lucrative opportunity. Her brother is an active reservist in Iraq, her grandmother is a beneficiary of social services, and her hometown — Memphis, Tenn. — is the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.
“It’s about movements and revolutions,” Stanback said. “This election shows that there can still be movements in this country, in this century, that are greater than any of us.”
Shaffer is back at school now, blue-booking and shopping classes. While he does not have time for the 60-hour weeks he put in this summer, he still volunteers on an ad hoc basis, convinced of the importance of November’s election.
“If Joe needs me to do something,” he said, “I’ll do it.”